The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Zola's Moment Of Genius For Chelsea
Chelsea’s limp goalless draw with Norwich City last weekend reminded me of a much more enjoyable occasion against the same opposition, when I saw what in my view was the best goal I’ve ever seen live.
The scorer of that iconic goal was Gianfranco Zola, who had moved from Parma to Chelsea in 1996, when it was very rare for Italian players in their prime to leave Serie A. Chelsea fans instantly fell in love with him, as he combined being an incredible player on the pitch with a model professional off it. His English was impeccable, despite allegedly having learned some choice phrases from Dennis Wise.
At the end of his first season he was voted Football Writers Association Player of the Year, even though he had only arrived at the club in November. He stayed until the summer of 2003, when he left for his home town club of Cagliari in Sardinia having cemented his place as a Chelsea legend. No player has worn the number 25 shirt since.
In the 2001/2 season Chelsea were drawn against Norwich in the FA Cup third round. After a goalless draw at Carrow Road, the replay took place at Stamford Bridge on 16 January 2002. Goals from Mario Stanic and Frank Lampard had given Chelsea a 2-0 lead in a fairly uneventful game when Chelsea were awarded a corner in the 63rd minute.
Graeme Le Saux sent the ball in low towards the near post. Zola ran clear of his marker and suddenly the ball was in the top corner. There was a brief moment of silence as fans all looked at each other, wondering exactly what they’d just seen. I knew we’d just witnessed something very special but on first viewing I couldn’t quite work out what Zola had done. Nobody could get their head round it. “What just happened there?” we were asking each other.
Tickets arranged by a work colleague meant we were in middle tier of the East Stand, just in front of the corporate boxes. People started turning to watch the televisions in the boxes as they began endless replays of Zola’s moment of magic. As the ball came to him he had flicked it, on the volley, with the inside of his right heel and sent it rocketing past Canaries goalkeeper Robert Green into the roof of the net. It was an astonishing piece of skill; a moment of rare genius you never forget. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it on YouTube since and it just seems to get better every time.
Meanwhile Zola stood with his back to the Matthew Harding Stand, pointing at the number 25 on his back, as he was mobbed by the Chelsea players. One fan jumped out of the crowd and gave him a hug.
A fourth goal in the 89th minute by Mikael Forssell rounded off a comfortable win for Chelsea but there was only one moment everyone wanted to talk about.
Chelsea’s Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, in his inimitable style, described the goal after the match as “Fantasy, magic. Only Maradona or Pele – only the big players – would do something like that. Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard and the wizard must try.”
Zola, ever the humble man, dedicated the goal to Matthew Aston, an eight-year old he had visited in a clinic just after Christmas. He had promised the boy he would do something special for him but sadly Matthew died of a brain tumour before he got to see Franco’s piece of brilliance. “I was touched by the smile he gave me,” said Zola that evening. “He was in agony and I hope he will see the goal from wherever he is.”
Describing the goal itself, Zola said: “Don't ask me how I did it, because I don't know. It is one of those goals you could try 100 times and it will probably never come off again.”
Whole montages have been put together of Zola’s dazzling array of skills, free kicks and goals, but for me that little flick against Norwich remains the stand out moment from a truly great player and the finest goal I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
Follow Neal on Twitter, @nealu_freelance